Stories With Charm
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The Bay Area talk-show host Brian Copeland started writing his oneman show, “Not a Genuine Black Man,” after an anonymous letter arrived at his radio station accusing him of being just that. The resulting evening of stand-up comedy, confessional narrative, and civil rights-era stories was a smash hit in Mr. Copeland’s native San Francisco, and it retains a homey, regional-theater quality in its current reincarnation at the DR2 Theater, directed by Bob Balaban (“The Exonerated”).
Mr. Copeland is a likable, folksy host who tells good stories and does all his character’s voices. But somehow the evening never feels quite like genuine theater; it’s more like a live performance being recorded for a radio broadcast.
The dual narrative of “Not a Genuine Black Man” alternates between Mr. Copeland’s experience as a black child in the all-white suburb of San Leandro and as a black father living in a predominantly white neighborhood. Many of Mr. Copeland’s stories have both punch and charm.
He speaks with affection of his high-toned mother, a strong-willed woman who fought a terrifying, racially motivated eviction case yet couldn’t stand up to her abusive husband, a drifter who was seldom at home. He creates a memorable portrait of his Southern grandmother, who took care of the children and taught them no-nonsense strength. And he reports candidly on his adult struggle to get past an abusive father, a mother dying young, and a lifetime of being judged on sight – dating back to the age of 8, when a cop first patted him down for the crime of being on the sidewalk with his baseball and bat.
“Not a Genuine Black Man” isn’t content to tell its sensitive stories – it wants to be a broad comedic show. But Mr.Copeland’s jokes often do little more than trade on flat stereotypes of blacks and whites. “In a white household,” one goes, “you call an adult a liar, you get a ‘time out.’ In a black household, you call an adult a liar, you’re lucky if you ever come to.” In another discomfiting joke, he feigns disbelief that cab drivers in turbans won’t pick him up. “Let me get this straight, you look like you just crawled out of a cave in Afghanistan with a bomb strapped to you, and you’re afraid to pick my ass up?” This is the kind of watered-down Jay Leno standup where the audience laughs not because the jokes are funny, but because the comedian’s delivery makes them think it’s time to laugh.
His throwaway lines are potentially damaging to his all-important rapport with the crowd, and Mr. Copeland knows it. After he says, “I like white women – that’s black!” and gets an uncomfortable murmur in response, he says reassuringly, “Don’t worry, I just pulled that out of my ass.” He’s relying on our affection for his warm-hearted stories to carry these harsher jokes. We’re supposed to think of him as a nice guy who’s a little edgy, a middle-class rebel who’s not afraid to tell us how black people really think.
But Mr. Copeland does his story a disservice by casting it blunt in racial-political terms. All the stereotyping interrupts the momentum of his compelling story, which is about a family battling vi olence from within and discrimination from without. Yes, the family is black, and the fact that they’re black is crucial – both in terms of plot and character. But when the writing is really working, and Mr. Copeland is deeply in character, there’s no need to prove the authenticity of these people. It’s simply there.
The strength of the show lies in its true stories, which are powerful enough to overcome certain problems with their delivery. Mr. Copeland’s performance can come across as exaggerated – he has a kind of hyper-animation that’s better suited to sitcoms than to a black box theater.And after a 22-month run in San Francisco, the material isn’t as fresh to him as it probably once was. Mike Riggs’s unsubtle shifts of lighting hit the au dience over the head with their intent – dark means sad, light means funny – distracting you from the stories.
But Mr. Copeland is a radio man, and he knows how to get his stories across. You can envision Mr. Copeland’s mother at the International House of Pancakes, leaving a 150% tip to impress upon a snotty waitress that she could afford to be there. You can picture his grandmother’s tough scowl, his father’s frightening smirk. You feel his revulsion when his 4-year-old son asks him to buy the white dollhouse family rather than the brown one. And you can feel his mother’s wonderful brio in him, too. She would approve that he now lives in a San Leandro neighborhood that “she would have been stopped just walking through.”
Open run (103 E. 15th Street at Union Square East, 212-239-6200).